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Review: Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZE

by Mike Pouliot on 12/05/2011

If you’re a Canon or Nikon shooter, you have a pretty vast selection of lenses to choose from. Most people tend to gravitate towards lenses that are made by the same manufacturer as their body. When I first started shooting, I looked like a walking advertisement for Canon…they should have been paying me. Over time, I found that third party products can be just as good or better than the “brand name” products. Over the past year or so, I’ve developed a curiosity with Zeiss optics. I love the build quality and the attention to detail. The Distagon 35mm f/1.4 is truly a wonderful lens, but it’s out of most hobbyist’s price range. Luckily, Zeiss’ Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 is less than half of the price of its 35mm cousin.

So can the 50mm hang with the rest of Zeiss’ products? Let’s find out.

Technical Specifications

Focal length 50 mm
Aperture range f/1.4 – f/16
Focusing range 0,45 m – infinity
Number of elements/groups 7/6
Angular field, diag./horiz./vert. 45°/38°/26°
Coverage at close range 24 x 16 cm
Filter thread M 58 x 0.75
Dimensions (with caps) ø 69-71 mm, length 66-71 mm
Weight 330-380 g
Camera mounts F Mount (ZF.2)
EF Mount (ZE)

This review will focus on the ZE (Canon) mount but Zeiss also makes this lens in a ZF.2 mount which is for Nikon shooters. I’m actually slightly jealous of the Nikon shooters as the ZF.2 version of this lens has an external aperture ring which is going to make Nikon videographers happy.

What’s Included

It would be nice if Zeiss included some sort of case or pouch for this lens. The Zeiss 50mm f/1.4, like most of Zeiss’ products, is not weather sealed which means it is more susceptible to dust getting into its elements. The demo unit I was using did have a few specs of dust within the lens which did not affect performance but this may worsen over time. Anyway, a nice bag or case would help reduce the risk of dust entering your lens when not in use.

Construction and Build Quality

Thankfully, Zeiss didn’t cut any corners when making this lens. Like all of the other Zeiss ZE lenses I’ve used, this lens is really top of the line in terms of build quality. EVERYTHING is made out of metal, even the lens hood. I think if a Zeiss engineer were to use the word “plastic” or “polycarbonate”, they would be fired on the spot. The nice thing about this lens is even though it is all metal and glass, it isn’t as heavy as you would think. This lens actually weighs less than the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 and the only metal on that lens is the mount.

Along the barrel you will see something that is not very common in photography anymore, a distance scale! Because this lens does not have auto focus, may photographers (myself included), opt to zone focus at times. If you do not know how to use this scale, I highly recommend you get your Google on as zone focusing can come in handy from time to time.

If a company is going to produce a lens without auto focus, they had better make sure the lens has the best focusing ring on the market. Luckily for Zeiss, they do. Using the focus ring on the 50mm, or any other ZE lens, is a pleasure. The ring is perfectly weighted and there is a solid distance between stops which allows the photographer to precisely dial in focus. I’ll talk about manually focusing in more detail later in the review.

The Elephant in the Room…No Auto Focus

Let’s be honest here, most people are going to avoid this lens for one reason, the lack of auto focus. Now, for some like sports photographers, AF may be an absolute requirement but you may be surprised at how quickly you learn manually focus once that is your only option. I’ll admit, when I first started using Zeiss lenses, I got slightly frustrated because I found myself missing shots I probably wouldn’t have missed had I been using a lens with AF. But, after a week or two of solid use, I was feeling pretty comfortable with this manual focus lens. Here’s a few tricks that I learned that may help you get comfortable with manual focusing:

  1. Practice. That’s a pretty easy and obvious one, but it’s true. Just like anything else, the more you practice, the better you become. Go out shooting with a lens using manual focus only for a week or two. Yes, you will probably get frustrated but stick with it and you’ll notice that it almost becomes second nature.
  2. Get a different focus screen. If you are going to use manual focus lenses or vintage glass that does not have AF, get a good focusing screen. Pretty much every camera manufactures makes all sorts of focusing screens that can help you focus manually with greater ease and accuracy. Look for a matte or split prism screen…these seem to work the best for focusing manually.
  3. Learn to zone focus.
  4. Pre-visualize/anticipate your shots. This may seem like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo or artsy-fartsy stuff, but hear me out on this. After using this lens for a week or two, I found myself scanning my surroundings and turning the focusing ring accordingly. If I started to scan things closer to me, I would turn the focusing ring to the right and I would do the opposite for things that were farther away. Doing this allows you to setup or prep your camera so when you bring the camera up to your eye, you are only making fine focus adjustments instead of spinning the ring like a madman. This may take some practice, but you will get it down.

AF Confirmation accuracy

Focus was based on AF Confirmation. The image looks fairly sharp, but take a look at the crop below.

AF confirmation said I had acchived focus, but this was clearly inaccurate. As a result, the image is soft.

When I first read about Zeiss’ ZE lenses and their lack of AF, I was pretty reluctant to shoot with them. I’ve become so accustomed to using AF lenses that I was sure I wouldn’t be able to shoot effectively without AF. Then, I read that all ZE lenes have AF confirmation. I thought “this is great! Now I’ll be able to nail focus.” It’s nice to have that little electronic ”beep” to reassure you that you truly are in focus. But, after using this lens for about a week, I realized that my images weren’t exactly what I would call sharp. After I did the comparison against the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 and the Canon 50mm f/1.8, I knew something had to be wrong. When it came to sharpness, the Zeiss was getting slaughtered by both of these lenses…yes, even the $100 nifty fifty. After this test I started to doubt the accuracy of Zeiss’ AF confirmation. I decided to ditch the AF confirmation and go with my eye. What I found works best for me is to use a combination of the AF confirmation light and my eye. I would focus until I got the beep and then I would fine tune from there. After using this method, I took another look at my images and I was shocked at the difference in sharpness. Images where extremely sharp and crisp…it was very surprising. While this focusing method took a bit of getting used to, I was focusing pretty quickly after a few weeks of shooting and the results speak for themselves.

I used AF confirmation to achieve focus and then I fine tuned the image by eye. Look at the crop below, the image is much sharper than the series above.

Much sharper!

After all of this, I went to Zeiss’ website and here’s what they have to say on their AF confirmation:

The region shown as “in focus” when rotating the focus ring is generally quite large and is also dependent on the direction from which the subject is being brought into focus (i.e. whether you are coming from infinity or from the closest focus distance). We therefore recommend comprehensively testing the camera in combination with a manual lens in order to get a photographer’s feel for the situations in which you can rely on the AF indicator. Especially when using fast lenses, it is advisable to take a bracketing series with a wide-open aperture and short shooting distances in order to achieve optimum results.

So, while it may be a good too to approximate focus, it is not always completely accurate. If you really want to take the guess work out of focusing, I HIGHLY recommend you pickup a matte or split prism focusing screen for your camera. This will take the guesswork out of focusing manually.

Image Quality

Overall, I was quite impressed with the images I captured while using this lens. While this lens does have a maximum aperture of f/1.4, I would not recommend shooting wide open unless completely necessary. When shooting wider than f/1.8, the images are soft (even in the center of the frame), contrast is lacking, and chromatic aberration/color fringing is clearly visible. It looks like the images have a dreamy feel to them. This is slightly disheartening as most people that buy a fast lens are most likely going to want to shoot it wide open on occasion.  I did a quick comparison with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 and the Canon 50mm f/1.8 to show center sharpness and bokeh at several different apertures. Click here to view this comparison. While none of these lenses are truly stellar when shooting wide open, all produce decent images but I think the Zeiss should perform better at this price. Many of the other Zeiss lenses (e.g. Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4) are amazing when shot wide open.

As you would image, the more you stop down, the better your results will be. Once you hit f/2 or so, this lens really comes to life. Sharpness across the frame is excellent and color accuracy and saturation are very good as well. I shoot most of my images between f/2 and f/5.6 which is right in the Zeiss’ wheelhouse. If you are some that has loves to shoot wide open often, this may not be the lens for you. The images may be too soft and manually focusing any type of moving object at f/1.4 is quite challenging.

Bokeh

Canon 5D with Zeiss 50mm f/1.4. Shot at 1/6400 sec, ISO 100, f/1.4.

Canon 5D with Zeiss 50mm f/1.4. Shot at 1/1600, ISO 100, f/2.8.

Canon 5D with Zeiss 50mm f/1.4. Shot at 1/800, ISO 100, f/4.

When paying this type of money for a fast prime lens, you’d expect to have nice to have smooth and creamy bokeh. I enjoy the bokeh from the Zeiss, but it does have a unique look to it that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s different than the bokeh produced by another lens, say the Sigma’s 50mm f/1.4…I would say it doesn’t blend in the same smooth manner. I always say bokeh is a very subjective thing and there is no right or wrong answer so take a look at the photographs above and you can make the call for yourself.

When I reviewed the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4, I noted that some of the images had almost a 3D quality to them; I was hoping that the Zeiss 50mm would have the same effect. Unfortunately, the 50mm does not have the 3D effect but I guess you can’t expect the same IQ from a lens that costs half as much as the 35mm.

Flare

When using the included lens hood, flare is not an issue. I actually had to try to get this lens to flare which I was able to do on my way to work one morning. I usually shoot with my nifty fifty and I rarely have flare issues with this lens. A few weekends ago, I was at an apple harvest festival and I took a few photos of a man making wood carvings with a chainsaw…he had skills. I decided to take a few shots with the nifty fifty and then with the Zeiss. To my surprise, the Canon 50mm f/1.8 did have an issue with flare while the Zeiss didn’t show a hint of flare. Yes, the Canon is a fraction of the price of the Zeiss but the Canon never really has flare issues except for extreme situations. The Zeiss had zero issues with flare in the same setting.

Chromatic Aberration

As I stated before, CA is apparent when shooting at wider apertures, but it is not as bad as some reviewers have stated. Make sure you are using the lens hood and you should see minimal CA. Also, any CA that you may encounter with this lens will be minimal and can easily be cleaned up in post processing. When compared to the  the Sigma, the Zeiss actually controls CA quite well. The Sigma has quite a bit of CA when shooting at wider apertures.

Sharpness

For you images to be sharp, you need to make sure your images are in focus. That may be the most obvious statement I’ve ever written, but it’s true. Most of us never really think about this because we let AF figure things out for us. Yes, you may tell your camera where to focus, but you aren’t nailing the focus down by hand. With this lens, it’s all on you. As I said earlier in this post, you need to practice and a new focus screen is highly recommended. With all of that being said, when focus is accurate and the lens is stopped down to f/1.8 or higher, this lens is extremely sharp. All of the photos in this review have not been modified in post processing unless stated in the caption of the image. When looking throught these images in Lightroom, not once did I feel the need to add sharpness or clarity to any of these images. That says a lot about this lens as I usually add a little clarity to most of my images.

Color

In general, colors from this lens are very pleasing. When shot wide open, colors are a bit less saturated and contrast is a bit lacking. Like I said before, stop down a bit and this lens really shines.

The Good

This lens is not straight from the camera, I did make color adjustments in Lightroom.

  • Bokeh
  • Overall image quality (color, sharpness, saturation, etc.)
  • Build quality
  • Great for shooting video
  • This lens makes you shoot and think differently

The Bad

  • IQ wide open – If you’re looking for a low light shooter, this may not be your best choice. Shooting below f/2 results in soft, dreamy looking images. Images look better at f/1.8 but if you want to get the most of out of this lens, you need to stop down to f/2 or f/2.5.
  • Price – This lens is more expensive than Sigma’s and Canon’s 50mm f/1.4.
  • No AF may be a deal breaker for some

Who is it for?

  • Videographers
  • Those looking to upgrade from the nifty fifty
  • Photographers that want a lens with very good optics and the best build quality on the market
  • Studio or portrait photographers. If you aren’t out shooting fast moving objects you may really like using this lens. Colors look great and this lens is tack sharp above f/2.
  • Anyone looking for something different. Shooting with manual focus really does force you to shoot and think differently. If you’re in a creative rut or if you are simply looking for something out of the ordinary, I would highly recommend looking at this lens or another Carl Zeiss lens.

Conclusion

So, I’m sure some of you are thinking “should I buy one?” Well, you really need to ask yourself  one important question. Is auto focus a must for you? If so, then this probably isn’t the lens for you. If you can live without AF or if you already have a 50mm lens (or something that covers this focal length) that has AF and you are looking for something different, then I would highly recommend you put the Zeiss on your list.

I always say that Zeiss lenses are sort of like a specialty lens (think tilt shift lens) in that they aren’t for everyone or all situations. I genuinely enjoy shooting with these lenses but I can see why some may shy away from Zeiss’ offerings as they aren’t what I would call “mainstream” products. If you can live without AF (it’s no that hard, trust me) and you want a lens with excellent IQ and outstanding build quality, the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4 ZE may be the lens for you.

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